Sweet predators: the cannibal courtship of Dengue Fever

MTV Iggy, September 9, 2011

There’s a poignant moment on Cannibal Courtship, the fifth album from the Cambodia-inspired, Los Angeles-based Dengue Fever, that encapsulates what is tragic and urgent in the message of this idiosyncratic band who just as often come off light-hearted.

It comes on a track called “Sister In the Radio.” Singing in Khmer against a slow-paced backdrop that sounds a bit like a surf-rock dirge, frontwoman Chhom Nimol tells a story from her childhood—when she was about 9 years old and living, like many Cambodians scattered by the Khmer Rouge genocide and later political conflict, in refugee camps.

“This is my personal song,” Chhom says, in a conversation before the band took the stage recently at Lincoln Center in New York. “When I was a kid I lived in camps in Thailand. My family had fled. I had no idea if my older sister…”

She falters: eleven years since arriving in America, her English, though much improved, is still progressing. Zac Holtzman, who plays guitar and alternates on lead vocals with Chhom, jumps in and picks up the story.

“Her sister got left behind,” he explains. “And so she wasn’t sure if she was alive or not. And then one day they heard her singing on the radio.”

It was the big sister. She was alive and had become a singer. Chhom’s mother recognized the voice immediately. Chhom, however, struggled to understand how any person, let alone a sister of hers, could fold up so small as to fit inside a transistor radio.

Photo credit: Lauren Dukoff

“My mother told me, ‘That’s your sister in the radio!’ And then she started crying. But I was laughing: How did she get inside the radio?”

As Chhom explains, this happy incident set in motion a series of events that helped to reunite her family, blaze her own career as a singer, and eventually spark the family’s move to Long Beach, California, where a large Cambodian community has formed.

But the moment as recalled in the song is also classic Dengue Fever. At once wrenching and absurd, it reveals the wry sense of humor the band brings to topics—genocide, exile, cultural survival—that could give rise instead to morbidly earnest or didactic treatments.

After all, on one level Dengue Fever are archivists and revivalists of a bygone era, the heyday of Cambodian pop that was the rage in cosmopolitan Phnom Penh until the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975. The music mixed elements of surf-rock, psychedelia and classic girl-group sounds—a quirky hybrid that reflected, among other things, Western contact with the region in the penumbra of the Vietnam War.

It did not survive the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. The regime’s obsessive campaign to remake Cambodian society killed an estimated 2 million people, emptying the cities and dragooning the population into forced farm labor, and musicians—along with teachers, intellectuals, and just about anyone middle-class and modern—were particular targets. Top pop stars like singers Ros Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamouth vanished, presumed killed. Recording studios and master tapes were gone. As Cambodia emerged from the horror, scattered cassettes were all that was left of this music.

As it happens, keyboardist (and Zac’s brother) Ethan Holtzman heard some of these on a trip to Cambodia in 1997. As the story goes, it happened while he was escorting to the hospital his travel companion, who had come down with the mosquito-borne infection dengue fever. (This would also inspire the band’s name, making Dengue Fever perhaps the only major act besides heavy metal’s Anthrax to be named after a nasty disease.)

Ethan was taken by the sound’s combination of Cambodian elements—the voices, the lyrics, the melodies—with classic California surf-rock instruments and timbre. On his return to the US he was surprised to find out that Zac too had come across similar material, and was equally fascinated.

Dengue Fever @ Lincoln Center. Photo: MTV Iggy/Dylan Hess

The double revelation drove the brothers to form a band in which they could explore the sound for themselves. A talent search in Long Beach for a Cambodian female singer eventually led them to Chhom, and the nucleus of what is now a six-piece band—in which Chhom remains the only Cambodian—was formed.

But the mission of Dengue Fever is not to simply reproduce old songs. They have contributed to preserving Cambodian pop by curating Electric Cambodia, a collection of their favorites from Ros, Sinn and other period stars, that they put out last year. (Also recommended is a separate series called Cambodian Rocks.)

In their own music, though, Dengue Fever have been pushing out the boundaries—never more so, by Zac Holtzman’s own estimation, than onCannibal Courtship, the new CD.

“Some of the songs go further in directions that I think have always been there for us,” Zac says. “The song ‘Uku’ is more traditional and psychedelic than we’ve gone. ‘Cement Slippers’ is full-on rock and fuzzed out. Yeah—like these seeds that were already part of us just grew into these crazy bushes of poison oak.”

As for the lyrics, the songs in English steer clear of historical tragedy to instead play with more typical pop themes—first and foremost a classic topic, dysfunctional relationships.

On “Cement Slippers,” Chhom and Zac Holtzman trade lines that enact the angst of a co-dependent couple, such as “My boyfriend loves everything about me, except the endless hours of therapy.” On “Only A Friend” they play a couple separated by travel: she is at home, eating dinner and going to movies with another guy who is “only a friend,” while he is on tour “overseas, flirting with girls and catching diseases.”

As for the title track, it’s a kind of aggressive ballad in which Chhom delivers a love message laced with a predatory undercurrent: “Be my sacrificial lamb.”

“That’s a cannibal courtship,” Ethan says. “There’s a couple of animals, like the female black widow will mate with the male, and then she’ll eat its head and kill it. The praying mantis is the same. The whole vibe of the lyrics deals with relationships and how they feed off each other.”

Photo: MTV Iggy/Dylan Hess

But the comparison might extend further, says Zac. He says it captures something of the dynamic Dengue Fever explore in their music, between Cambodia and the West.

“There’s this sort of courtship between our two cultures,” he says. “It’s like we’re feeding off the positive things of Cambodian culture and they’re feeding off positive things in British and American culture, like surf and garage…”

It’s an ambiguous metaphor, and there’s certainly something ambiguous about Dengue Fever’s entire set-up and presentation. In the past, they’ve veered dangerously close to gestures that seem to fetishize the exotic—for instance, when in their early days they would have Chhom driven up to the stage in a cycle-rickshaw brought from Cambodia for the purpose. A stage show involves Chhom in traditional dress, offering folded-palm ritual greetings to the audience, while the five male musicians rock out surfer-style.

At the same time, their engagement with Cambodia and the preservation of its arts—not just the brief rock period that sparked their initial interest—has only deepened. They have played for 10,000 people in a Phnom Penh square, and are recognized across Cambodia when they travel there.

In the United States, they are involved with Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), a Cambodian diaspora non-profit that raises awareness of the impact of the genocide on the arts, and works with surviving master musicians, many of them scattered by emigration, to teach and preserve traditional performance.

Dengue Fever @ Lincoln Center. Photo: MTV Iggy/Dylan Hess

If the Holtzman brothers ever get self-conscious about their position as Westerners representing Cambodian culture, they aren’t showing it.

“Come on, there’s lots of bands that are inspired by different music,” says Ethan. “And we happen to be inspired by Cambodian sixties rock, and that’s why we formed a band. It just so happened this was the way we started. And when we go back to Cambodia, it’s only a positive thing.”

Chhom agrees. Ten years ago, she was perplexed that these two white guys sought her out in Long Beach and asked her to join a band playing songs based on music she remembered from childhood. Her family and friends were skeptical too.

Now, after ten years of recording and touring as Dengue Fever, she says any doubts have long since melted away. “Now everybody is so proud of us,” she says. “Definitely right now, I’m very comfortable with what we do.”